It’s a tough world when you’re a professional athlete. On an almost daily basis you ask your body to deliver more than most people would ever find possible.
So choosing anything that you can do to provide a positive advantage is a real no-brainer. For more and more athletes in general, and pro-basketball players in particular, this has increasingly led to switching to a vegan or plant-based diet.
What once was seen as a faddy affectation has gradually become more mainstream with an increasing number of Americans choosing to switch their habits and take up so-called “cleaner eating”.
The principles behind veganism lie in both practical and ethical areas. The food is far removed from the processed diet that for many has become the norm. Its production is also seen as being much more environmentally friendly than farming for meat. But when it comes to pro players, the benefits are all about the enhanced performance they believe it can fuel.
High profile players who’ve switched
In line with the rest of the population, an increasing number of NBA stars have seen veganism as the way ahead.
One of the highest profile of these has been the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard. He was something of a trail blazer himself when it came to switching his eating habits having first dabbled with veganism back in 2017.
At the time he stated that his primary aim was to lose weight in order to be quicker on court and put less strain on his joints. In a game that’s dominated by statistics, pretty soon these started to show the difference it was making.
In the 2017-18 season he reached a near career-average high of 26.9 points per game. Now, five years older, he is averaging 32.3 points per game. Obviously, this can’t all be due to his diet, but it’s definitely a contributory factor.
For an example of how veganism is also helping to prolong careers, one only has to take a look at Chris Paul. Now 37 he was first drafted in 2005 by the New Orleans Hornets and subsequently developed to be one of the best point guards in the game.
Inevitably, as the seasons went on his performance levels dipped and he found himself at something of a crossroads – until he switched to a vegan diet.
Suddenly there was a new sense of zip to his game and he is now enjoying a true resurgence with the Phoenix Suns – a team riding high in the NBA playoff odds.
Dallas Mavericks’ 35 year old center JaVale McGee is another player who credits his playing longevity to a switch to veganism, and there are plenty more who eschew meat and dairy including Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan and Jahil Okafor.
The physical benefits of veganism
With nutrition and health being one of the most burning topics in recent years it’s not surprising that a great deal of research has been carried out into the benefits of going plant-based, particularly in enhancing athletic performance.
Of particular relevance is a vegan diet’s ability to provide protein – essential for muscle development and recovery. In many cases a plant-based foods have been found to provide more of this vital nutrient than meat. Black beans, for example, provide more protein ounce for ounce than chicken and just 18 grams of lentils provide the same amount as a hamburger.
Because of the low to no levels of fat in the vegan diet this is also very good for heart health. With especial strain being placed on the cardiovascular systems of athletes this reduces the risk of potential damage as well as cutting cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure.
Injury is also something that affects almost all athletes at some time or another. The unique physical characteristics of many basketball players, and the strains caused by playing, means that they are arguably more susceptible than other sports people. But there is considerable evidence that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nature of plants can help speed recovery. Vegan diets are also thought to help blood to deliver oxygen more efficiently around the body, also promoting faster healing.
Promoting veganism beyond the NBA
Today many NBA players are using their positions as role models to encourage the plant-free lifestyle. For instance, DeAndre Jordan has even presented his own cooking show called “Cooking Clean” on the Players TV network.
He is also brand ambassador, along with others including Harrison Barnes, J.J. Redick and Chris Paul, for Beyond Meat, a business that produces meat-alternatives that are also packed with protein.
So, looking to the future, we can undoubtedly see many more players across all sports switching to vegan diets. Whether this will also lead to world records being broken and levels of performance going through the roof, we’ll just have to wait to find out.